National Journal: Can Democrats Take On The NFL?

March 24, 2016
In The News

House Demo­crats are rar­ing to con­front the Na­tion­al Foot­ball League over its hand­ling of concus­sions, but they may find it as tough as passing against the Den­ver Bron­cos de­fense.

An earli­er at­tempt to hold NFL com­mis­sion­er Ro­ger Goodell ac­count­able for the game’s safety risks fizzled out and Con­gress’s oth­er deal­ings with sports leagues are of­ten dis­missed as grandstand­ing. The NFL’s bil­lions in profits and cul­tur­al status as the biggest sport in the coun­try also make it tough to touch, even on an is­sue as big as con­cus­sions.

Demo­crats are hop­ing that this time can be dif­fer­ent. An NFL of­fi­cial ad­mit­ted this month for the first time a link between play­ing foot­ball and chron­ic trau­mat­ic en­ceph­alo­pathy, a de­gen­er­at­ive brain dis­order. En­ergy and Com­merce rank­ing mem­ber Frank Pal­lone has since called for hearings with the NFL and Na­tion­al Col­legi­ate Ath­let­ic As­so­ci­ation as part of the com­mit­tee’s broad re­view of head in­jur­ies.

And while Demo­crats may not be able to call hear­ings on their own, they are hop­ing to keep pres­sure on the NFL by prob­ing the league’s with­draw­al of fund­ing for a Na­tion­al In­sti­tutes of Health study of head in­jur­ies. In a let­ter to the NFL on Wed­nes­day, Pal­lone and three oth­er Demo­crats high­light doc­u­ments ac­quired from the NIH that show NFL of­fi­cials rais­ing con­cerns about the se­lec­tion of a Bo­ston Uni­versity re­search­er for the study, in­clud­ing an NFL re­quest that money also go to two oth­er re­search­ers to “di­lute the voice of a more mar­gin­al group.”

The Demo­crats charge that in­ter­ven­ing in the grant-se­lec­tion pro­cess is “troub­ling,” and also seek in­form­a­tion about the makeup and re­im­burse­ment of the league’s Head, Neck, and Spine Com­mit­tee, which ad­vises on head in­jur­ies.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky said she didn’t real­ize that she was set­ting pre­ced­ent when she prod­ded Jeff Miller, the NFL’s ex­ec­ut­ive vice pres­id­ent of health and safety policy, to say there was a link between the re­peated blows to the head in foot­ball and CTE. The ad­mis­sion could prompt ac­tion in a law­suit from re­tired play­ers against the NFL that is on ap­peal, or in­spire new suits.

And Schakowsky said she wasn’t ready to stop there.

“We need to con­tin­ue the re­search in­to brain trauma of all sorts,” said Schakowsky, an Illinois Demo­crat, even as she ac­know­ledged “the ele­phant in the room is bil­lions of dol­lars in big sports.” In fact, des­pite the NFL’s re­cent ad­mis­sion, Dal­las Cow­boys own­er Jerry Jones this week said it was “ab­surd” to link con­cus­sions to foot­ball.

Rep. Linda Sanc­hez knows how tough this ef­fort can be. In a 2009 Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee hear­ing, she ex­cor­i­ated Goodell for a “blanket deni­al” of the risk of brain trauma, com­par­ing the league to to­bacco com­pan­ies that denied a link between smoking and can­cer. After the hear­ing, she con­tin­ued to push for more con­gres­sion­al ac­tion on sports and head in­jur­ies, but that marked the end of the Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee’s pub­lic work.

When Demo­crats lost the House, Texas Re­pub­lic­an Lamar Smith took over the com­mit­tee and Sanc­hez said he had no in­terest in hold­ing fur­ther hear­ings. In that 2009 hear­ing, Smith—now chair­man of the House Sci­ence Com­mit­tee—ques­tioned the vera­city of stud­ies show­ing high rates of de­men­tia in re­tired NFL play­ers and warned mem­bers that “Monday morn­ing quar­ter­back­ing does not ne­ces­sar­ily qual­i­fy us as ex­perts.”

“The NFL is rich and power­ful and it in­flu­ences people,” Sanc­hez said in an in­ter­view. “If you’re Lamar Smith and you’re from Texas, where foot­ball is a re­li­gion, it’s not likely you’re go­ing to get any­body to dig deep.”

A House En­ergy and Com­merce sub­com­mit­tee and the Sen­ate Spe­cial Com­mit­tee on Aging held sub­sequent hear­ings on sports in­jur­ies, but promp­ted no mean­ing­ful ac­tion. Con­gress has also threatened the NFL over everything from its an­ti­trust status to the Wash­ing­ton Red­skins’ nick­name, a pet is­sue of Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id.

And the NFL has star­ted fight­ing back. The league’s polit­ic­al ac­tion committee donated $507,211 in 2015, on pace for its highest total in any elec­tion cycle. The league has also hired sev­er­al White House alumni to serve in its Wash­ing­ton of­fice, prom­ising to step up its lob­by­ing work.

Con­gress has of­ten had trouble tack­ling sports ser­i­ously. Al­though sports leagues are clas­si­fied as in­ter­state com­merce, giv­ing Con­gress jur­is­dic­tion over them, le­gis­lat­ors’ at­tempts to in­ter­vene have been cri­ti­cized as an over­reach or a dis­trac­tion from real is­sues. Per­haps the best-known example was a series of hear­ings fea­tur­ing base­ball stars such as Mark McG­wire and Ro­ger Clemens to an­swer ques­tions about ster­oid use.

Those hear­ings, however, did not pro­duce any new con­fes­sions (the court sys­tem proved a bet­ter av­en­ue for that) and were cri­ti­cized as bor­der­ing on Mc­Carthy­ism.

Demo­crats hope that this time will be dif­fer­ent. The movie Con­cus­sion, a flow of stor­ies about the long-term ef­fects of brain in­jur­ies, and chilling ac­counts from re­tired play­ers have brought the is­sue in­to the spot­light. And mem­bers have tried to tie it to le­gis­la­tion pro­tect­ing youth ath­letes.

“We’ve spent a lot of time just try­ing to ad­mit the link,” Sanc­hez said. “Now it’s time for Con­gress to push for in­creased aware­ness and fur­ther study so you can arm par­ents and chil­dren with the in­form­a­tion they need to stay safe.”